Monday, April 16, 2012

Weak Form Christianity

I just had the most liberating conversation with a Christian I've had in a very long time.

Almost all the Christians I know have been Christians their whole lives.  I just had coffee with a friend who didn't become a Christian until her freshman year of college.  One of my favorite things about her is that she doesn't speak Christianese- she just talks about things the way they are.

She has what appears to me (and probably most career Christians) an odd faith.  I'm labeling it Weak Form Christianity (WFC), not because it is inferior, but rather in the same way we talk about Weak Form Efficiency.

To summarize my understanding of the belief, it goes something like this: It is self evident that we are moral agents with free will.  As such, there must be something more than the physical.  This world and everything in it- emotional, intellectual, and relational- points towards a God as that something more.  Moreover, it points toward a relational God, a God who values love, who values self-sacrifice, who values altruism.  The Christian God is unique among all the forms of supernatural that have been proposed by humanity.  In particular, it is the only religion that offers us both an explanation and a narrative for the value of love, self-sacrifice and altruism.  It is the only religion that says that we simply cannot earn, fight, claw, scratch, or otherwise find our way to God.  Instead, it speaks of God coming to us in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice through the life, death, and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. 

But the difference between WFC and traditional Christianity is that this is pretty much all WFC claims. It doesn't claim any knowledge of whether people from other religions can make the cut.  It makes no claims about the infallibility of the Bible.  It makes no claims about what sort of relationship you're supposed to have with God.  All these are left as exercises for the reader, as it were.  (I want to point out that WFC is distinct from the "lukewarm" Christianity that is fairly common in America today.  WFC can be held with great conviction, and believers can live a life wholly commited to God even without claiming definitive knowledge of the specifics of God)

Essentially, this is an argument that Christianity is true because it just sounds true. It meets our (admittedly western) expectations of what a God would/could/should look like given the moral intuitions and subjective experiences we have in this world. And it gives us a model on which to base our actions and attitudes- a way to live our lives that has meaning and purpose (and is not self-contradictory).

To be fair, WFC is not a particularly well developed world view.  It doesn't explain a lot of things, and it is perfectly comfortable ignoring the problems created by the Biblical doctrines of Christianity.  But then again, it sort of just works.  And let me be clear, I'm not sure if it's true, but I do think it works.  I've seen it work, both in myself and in the lives of others.  It makes you a "better" person.  It makes you a loving person, a generous person, a person less concerned about yourself and more concerned about fixing this world that we've broken so badly.

Oddly enough, I find WFC much more compelling than traditional Christianity.  The more I study, the more convinced I become that we simply can't know the specifics of God with any sort of certainty.  Is baptism necessary for salvation?  Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation?  Is Homosexuality a sin or rejected because of a cultural construct in the time of the Bible?  I don't know.  An honest Christian can't claim to know either (though they could claim a belief or educated guess).  But many versions of Christianity promote these to the role of core doctrines- if not contingencies of salvation, at least contingencies of a "proper" Christian belief.  With so many separate-but-equally-supported belief systems (some internal to Christianity, some external), I find myself rejecting the idea that it would be possible to arrive at the correct conclusion even if one of them really is true.  And WFC does not suffer from this criticism.

I think the real attraction of WFC, however, is that it gives us a basis for living a better life, while leaving open the possibility that we have no idea what we're doing.  It's an acknowledgment only of the things that seem intuitively obvious, and an extrapolation of those things into a religious ideology.  It doesn't make nearly so many unverifiable claims as other forms of the religion.

There are obvious problems with WFC, however (lest the reader think me a convert).  Picking the parts you like and rejecting the parts you don't is almost never a good idea (whether its in a religion, a person, or anything else).  While WFC does not suffer from as many unverifiable claims as the rest, is does suffer from a few.  It makes some pretty big assumptions, going from "Moral Law" to "Omnipotent Benevolent Personal Relational Deity" without blinking.  It makes even fewer substantive claims than traditional Christianity- if Christianity is unfalsifiable, WFC is even more so.  But I think the biggest argument against WFC is that it's pretty clearly incomplete.  Nobody really believes this vague generalist view of God.

Interestingly, WFC seems to be the doctrine most Christians turn too when cornered by any of the (seemingly insurmountable) problems with the religion.  They invoke the "God works in mysterious ways" argument (one of my least favorite things in the world), and then say "But that's not the point of Christianity.  Christianity is about...", and they go on to expound WFC.  But very few Christians actually admit to believing only WFC.  They still hold to these ancillary claims and traditions that seem to have no basis, particularly if WFC is the only thing that really matters.

I honestly suspect this is an issue of ignorance within the church.  I have yet to talk to a Christian who has seriously considered in their own life all the arguments I have against the infalliability of the Bible, or the problem of Geography, or the basis on which Muslims should deconvert.  No one has given me even close to a satisfactory answer on any of them, and when confronted with these arguments, they retreat to WFC- but they never actually deal with the issues at hand.  And this seems to me a damning piece of evidence.  It seems to me that the Christians I know (even the ones I respect) live in a state of cognitive dissonance- they haven't really followed the conclusions of their religion to the logical end.  To be fair, I hadn't either.  When I did, I rejected my formulation of Christianity. 

Let me pause here and say that I don't legitimately think I'm living without cognitive dissonance.  I think it's something everybody deals with, as nobody has come up with a seriously liveable world view that does not contain at least a few contradictions and idiosyncracies.  That said, we ought (and here I go irrationally prescribing things again) to examine ourselves for this bias at every turn.  We should NOT be ignoring contradictions in our belief system; rather, we should admit them and attempt to rectify them with reality.  And it frustrates me when Christians don't do this, and instead rely on the boogeyman of epistemlogical debates- "We can't understand God"


  1. Hi there, per introduction, I'm a Catholic who came here via Unequally Yoked.

    I think WFC has a mirror image we might call "weak form atheism". It's the old ploy of "atheism is just absence of belief in gods, not much follows from that, so I don't have to defend anything".

    In both cases part of the reason for retreating to the weak forms is a debating strategy. They just leave fewer avenues for attack.

    But there is also a legitimate reason: it makes sense to work out the basics before the details. If the weak form isn't affected by the details and the question is about the weak form claims, then discussing the details is a distraction.

    For example, as a Catholic I would say that if the weak form is true and if we know that people can interpret pretty much everything into the bible (which seams like an empirical fact) then it's reasonable for God to have given us more guidance than scripture alone. Like, say, a Church with a sacred tradition and a magisterium. But that is what I disagree about with a Protestant, not what I disagree about with an atheist. So when I'm talking to an atheist talking about WFC seems reasonable.

    Likewise, if I was arguing with an intelligent design proponent I could try to dig up ideas on how the irreducibly complex system of the week might have evolved. But the fact is that they can come up with such examples faster than anyone can explain them. So at some point it's simply reasonable to admit we don't know how a particular system evolved but that specific system really isn't what evolution is about, so lets talk about the fossil record. That doesn't mean we don't believe there is a way every one of their example systems could have evolved, just that that is not really the issue on the table. And if I was an atheist it certainly would be reasonable to say something to the effect of "evolution works in sometimes mysterious ways, but that is not the point of atheism. Atheism is about..."

    B.t.w. your seemingly insurmountable problems mark you out as a conservative Protestant atheist. You should talk to other types of Christians too. Not that we don't have hard problems, but we have different ones...

  2. I think WFC has a mirror image we might call "weak form atheism". It's the old ploy of "atheism is just absence of belief in gods, not much follows from that, so I don't have to defend anything".

    Hmm, interesting thought. I do think Atheism tends to take this approach. I'm just not sure I'm convinced thats a bad (or rather, unreasonable) thing. I'm not sure I agree that you need a good alternative system in order to dismiss a system that you think has clear and fundamental flaws (which is typcially the claim made by atheists). It seems like if you're advocating for a particular world view, you need to meet this criteria. But if you're just arguing why some other world view is wrong, this doesn't seem to me like a requirement

    Of course at some point you have to decide what you do believe, not just what you don't believe. But I think I'm ok with saying "I don't know the answer... but I know I don't believe ____ is it", just as a general principle.

    But there is also a legitimate reason: it makes sense to work out the basics before the details. If the weak form isn't affected by the details and the question is about the weak form claims, then discussing the details is a distraction.
    This seems true only if the weak form is logically seperable from the strong form. That is to say, if it's possible to accept the weak form and reject the strong form, then I agree. I'm honestly not sure if I think this is the case with Christianity (and I seem to get different responses depending on which Christians I talk to)

    And if I was an atheist it certainly would be reasonable to say something to the effect of "evolution works in sometimes mysterious ways, but that is not the point of atheism. Atheism is about..."
    This makes me really nervous. You're absolutely right that "Evolution" is a fallback for the Atheist much the same way that "God" is a fallback for the Theist. They are both often invoked in arguments as broad, unverifiable justification for some fact that otherwise makes no sense. I don't know how to solve this problem, but I definitely don't like anybody using that "works in mysterious ways" phrase, because it frees us of all obligation to actually defend our position.

    B.t.w. your seemingly insurmountable problems mark you out as a conservative Protestant atheist. You should talk to other types of Christians too. Not that we don't have hard problems, but we have different ones...
    Yeah, that's definitely true. And I definitely do need to investigate other types of Christianity (just like I need to investigate other religions as well). There are some aspects of Catholicism that have caused me to reject it out of hand in the past (Papal infallibility, veneration of the Saints, the near-divinity status of Mary, priestly intercession, the historical actions of the church, etc.), but I definitely need a better understanding of these doctrines before closing the door (since I probably have at least a few misconceptions in there)

  3. Hi, I'm also a Catholic who got here via Unequally Yoked. I'm certainly no scholar and at times have trouble keeping up mentally with you and Leah's intellectual discourses and usually feel unsure about joining the debates, but I'd like to give my small bit of advice. Please read the early church fathers. A particularly good book is Four Witnesses by Rod Bennett. He puts some artistic license in it to set the scenes but I think the background helps put things in perspective and doesn't change what the early church fathers had to say. Of course most of their writings can be found on the internet for free. If we take it on the authority of early Christians that Jesus was a real man, that lived, died and rose from the dead, then they seem like a more reliable source of authority on Christianity than the numerous different ideologies and opinions on Christianity we can find today. After reading Four Witnesses, I'm pretty sure those early Christians didn't die for WFC. My apologies if you are already well versed on the early church fathers, I hope to go back and read through your older posts when I get the chance. I wish you well on your journey and will keep you in my prayers!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation Jennifer. I'm working on "Orthodoxy" and "The Everlasting Man" by G.K. Chesterton right now, but I'll definitely add Four Witnesses to my list.

      I agree with you that the early church fathers should be afforded some measure of respect beyond modern interpretations of Christianity, simply based on the fact that if it is true, they ought to have the most accurate view of it. It's probably a character flaw of mine that I tend towards more modern authors (I find that I simply have more in common with them)

  4. Oh, and Jake, I don't mean to keep beating my Catholic drum, but if you find it damning that Christians cannot answer your questions, I would recommend a quick look through a Catechism of the Catholic Church. I'm not suggesting a sit down and read from beginning to end (although it couldn't hurt if you felt like it) but just as an example that the Catholic church as a Christian body has answered a lot of questions over the years. I would be interested to know if you had a question that wasn't answered in it. Unfortunately I think people tend to know more about sports and celebrities these days than they do about the faith they profess, but that is a shortfall of people, not Christianity. I will definitely try to answer hard questions you ask, and not just throw books at you, it's just that I usually think there are others that have said things much better than I could.

    1. Yeah, I think my problem isn't so much that there aren't answers for these questions (no religion worth its salt can get away with not having at least some sort of answer), my problem is that these answers aren't particularly compelling. They are so uncompelling, in fact, that even the Christians don't seem to believe them- they fall back to WFC instead of actually defending the position (Christians tend to phrase this as "we can't understand God". The really honest ones say "Yeah, I don't honestly understand that either. But...")

      Here again I paint Christianity with too broad of a brush, but find myself suspicious of the fact that "Christianity" means something so general as to demand such a granular examination by an outsider...

  5. I see your dilemma, and I of course think the Catholic answers are the most compelling answers which means about as much to you as a Mormon telling me his answers are the most compelling answers. So again it leaves us with the question of who has the authority and I will go back and play a little ditty on my early church fathers drum. I do have a question though, would a belief in God and in a particular religion require you to know all the details, or how much could you allow to be a "mystery" since we would then be speaking of a being superior to ourselves.

    1. That's a really, really good question. If there is a God, is stands to reason that we can't hope to ever fully understand him. I think my answer here is pretty wishy-washy: I would believe in a God and in a particular religion IFF it differentiates itself from all other world views as being substantially more likely to be true. And I think that's a wishy-washy answer because "more likely" doesn't really mean anything specific. It includes things like being internally consistent, explaining the world in a reasonable way, making as few assumptions as possible, and generally conforming to our human standard of reasoning. Things like the doctrine of the Trinity, or how free will can exist in a seemingly purely causal universe are not a problem for me- I'm cool with me not fully grasping the nature of God. But things like a religion not living up to the claims it makes about what kind of "relationship" you're supposed to have with God are a huge problem.

      The truth is, I don't have 100% understanding of ANYTHING in life, not even the areas where I'm considered an expert. So it seems like an unrealistic standard to demand a complete understanding of a God that it's not clear I could understand even if he were real. What a religion MUST do, however, is live up to the claims it makes (it's difficult to make a substantive claim about something that you can't comprehend, so this seems like a pretty low bar)

  6. I see you have a previous post on the relationship problem and I will try to formulate my thoughts on the subject on post on that page soon.